Every Saturday from June through October, New Roots sets up a table at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market in Salt Lake City. Overflowing with leafy greens, chili peppers, squash and other organically grown produce, the table features a bounty grown by farmers whose roots go far deeper than the ground they stand on at the farmers market, with ties linking them back to their homelands of Chad, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia and Bhutan. While their backgrounds may be diverse, these farmers are all members of Salt Lake City’s burgeoning refugee community.
This group of farmers met through New Roots, an agricultural program based in Utah’s capital city that provides economic independence for refugees through leased farm plots, farmers markets and community gardens. The program is part of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian relief organization founded in 1933 with locations in 25 cities nationwide. In nearly a century, the IRC has provided relief for communities on a global scale by offering opportunities for refugees living in a foreign land. New Roots estimates that 84 percent of its growers have a background in agriculture.
One of these refugees is Albert Betoudji, who emigrated to the United States with his wife and children from Chad due to a coup d’etat in 2008 between the country and Sudan. He has been farming with New Roots since 2009. Now, more than a decade later, Betoudji is a grandfather of four and one of New Roots’ longest serving farmers. He’s responsible for nearly a dozen beds at the organization’s approximately two-acre farm on Redwood Road, located about seven miles southwest of downtown. It’s one of two farms operated by New Roots. (The second is a 13-acre site in Draper, 17 miles south.) Even though it’s still early in the season, green shoots have started sprouting from the soil, mainly garlic and onions. He’s already preparing to plant mustard greens and okra—two staples he grew up eating in Chad. While he shares some of the produce with his family, who make it into stews and sauces, most of it winds up at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market where he receives a portion of the profits.
Betoudji, who helped his father on the farm as a youth during school breaks, says that one of the biggest challenges he faced when settling in Utah was adjusting to farming in a much cooler climate compared to the heat and humidity he was used to in Chad.
“I tried planting some of the crops I grew back home, like sugarcane, but because of the weather, they wouldn’t grow,” he says. “Every year I change my crops, so if something doesn’t do well, I can try something else.”
That continuously evolving selection of produce is part of what draws crowds to the Sunnyvale Farmers Market. Before the market’s arrival several years ago, the area was part of a food desert. But now on Saturdays, the market is teeming with everyone from immigrants and refugees to native Utahns, who browse the tables in search of affordable produce that proves difficult to find in this region.
A farmer works at one of the two farms operated by New Roots. Photo courtesy of New Roots.
James Hunter, a food entrepreneurship program officer for New Roots, says that the market is where locals turn when they’ve exhausted other resources and can’t find what they want at specialty grocers. It’s very likely they’ll find what they’re looking for at the market, which offers approximately 120 different varieties of produce. The market’s variety all comes down to the seeds and how farmers have adapted to growing them in northern Utah, an area known for its snowy winters and arid climate.
Hunter says New Roots works hard through seed distributors to source different seeds for its farmers. And many farmers will save seeds year after year, as well as import them back from their homelands. “Through the farmers, I learned that there are dozens of different varieties of eggplant grown around the globe,” he says. “We have one farmer who grows a very specific type that is orange in color that’s popular with the local Burundian community, so he’s found a niche market.”
Bali Dhakal is another farmer who accommodates his crop to market demands. Dhakal came to Utah from Bhutan with his wife and children in 2009 after a major earthquake decimated his community. He uses his background as a farmer to grow carrots, garlic, potatoes, long beans, onions, cherry tomatoes and okra. Although he does bring some of the produce home to feed his family, he says the most important thing is that none of what he grows goes to waste.
“Sometimes when you grow produce in your home garden, it gets wasted because there’s too much,” Dhakal says through a translator. “With New Roots and the farmers market, I know that everything I grow goes to people who can use it.”
Another benefit is the community that New Roots provides. It’s something especially important for refugees who arrive in Utah and know no one. Through workshops and potlucks, the farmers have built a community that helps them feel more at home living in their adopted home. And that community extends far beyond the farm’s plowed fields.
“One time at the farmers market, I met a lady who was so happy to see vegetables she used to eat [in Africa],” Betoudji says. “She said to me, ‘I couldn’t find the foods I wanted to eat in the United States, but because of your vegetables, now I am home.’”